BY DONNA MINKOWITZ| I was afraid of Astoria’s Kabob Café because of Yelp. I’m not proud of it, but I was. Several Yelpers had claimed there was “filth,” “cobwebs,” and even a roach spotted crawling on the unique Egyptian café’s art-laden walls. I try to be open-minded about restaurants, but I do draw the line at vermin.
Still, new friends Karen Taylor (the celebrated community organizer) and her wife, Laura Antoniou (the celebrated BDSM author), had recommended the place, and the food sounded thrilling: Lamb cheeks in pickled lemon sauce. Grilled goat cooked in honey. Oh vegetarians, I know I have neglected you in these reviews so far, so think on this: “Three kinds of mushrooms ground and spread… [with] spicy tomatoes and homemade yogurt,” according to Kabob Café’s menu, which only exists online and guides the physical distribution of food there only as a sort of spiritual template. Pumpkin dumplings, according to a Yelper. Humita (a Quechua Indian dish from South America, what was it doing on this otherwise Egyptian bill?): a “crêpe filled with stewed corn served in fresh tomato sauce and topped with homemade farmer’s cheese.”
When I met Karen and Laura there one wintry Saturday afternoon, I entered the tiny storefront on Steinway Street, in the far less yuppie and more Arab section of Astoria. I saw mismatched chairs with velvet cushions and some variously beautiful and cheesy-looking paintings and souvenirs of Cairo, but no cobwebs or insects.
Many restaurants have been said to make you feel like you are guests in somebody’s home, but this is the only one that has ever really made me feel that way, for good or ill.
The chef and only staffer, Ali El Sayed, had just gotten back from vacation, and said his cupboards were barer than usual. He asked us to pick among the following things for lunch: cauliflower, beets with lemon, apples, garlic, and dill, green fava-bean falafel, lamb, duck, chicken, porgy, squid, and rabbit. Ali, tall, big-bellied, and gray-haired, in a black artist’s beret and chef’s whites, began to cook for us as my friends and I sat and talked. I knew from Yelp and from my friends that Ali’s meals take a long time, so we asked for hot tea, which he served us in glasses, with loads of mint leaves floating at the top.
The chef’s miniscule kitchen goes the length of the tiny room, and perhaps dominates it. I’ve eaten in restaurants with “open kitchens” before, but none has ever been as open as this. El Sayed is courtly and gracious, but he’s also occasionally overly talkative, on subjects ranging from politics (leftist, thankfully) to religion (he’s against it) and sex (he’s for it, in all of its varieties). Sometimes he even makes fun of his diners. Still, if you come with friends, he will not interrupt you much.
After Laura, Karen, and I had discussed (solely among ourselves) “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Snape from Harry Potter, and a recent controversy in the International Ms. Leather contest, Ali brought out three naked plates for us, strewn decorously with the spice blend called zaatar and with sumac, plus a few drops of olive oil. Then he brought the first entrée for us to spoon onto those plates: roasted cauliflower in an extraordinary pomegranate sauce, with pinenuts, skinny slivers of red pepper, and sautéed chicory leaves.
I’ve had some amazing cauliflower dishes around town, but this one was different. This roasted cauliflower dish reminded me of a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas where Jesus asks his disciples to tell him what he is like. One says, “You are like a righteous angel.” Another says, “You are like a wise philosopher.” But the disciple to whom Jesus gives the prize says, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying what you are like.” Jesus says (more or less), “That’s exactly what I wanted! You’ve become drunk from the intoxicating stream I have been tending.”
It was far better than an amazing similar dish at the Palestinian restaurant Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, hitherto my standard for the best Arab food in New York. I wanted to go on eating it until cauliflower came out of my nose.
Though in that gnostic text Thomas was rewarded for not trying to put into words what his own, spiritual version of that cauliflower dish was like, I will now put my foot in it and try anyway. With most attempts to make cauliflower taste good, the challenge is to temper its aggressiveness, but not so much that it loses its unique flavor. This cauliflower somehow blended with its tangy pomegranate friend (I believe lemon was also involved) in such a way that there was no tension between its pungency and the sweet, lappable sauce.
Next Ali brought duck, which, reader, is not my favorite animal to eat. But pieces of the roast thigh were succulent, with a wonderful, mysterious sweetness. They were served with dollops of a gelatinous-textured grain that Ali told us was a “polenta of cassava,” slim wedges of buttery roasted squash, and an appetizing wild green called horta. I like foods that quiver, and my fork went back again and again to that curious cassava jello-polenta. It bounced in my mouth.
Next came lamb, tiny, meaty little chops that went on and on in the mouth. My friends and I fought over them. They came in a somewhat different pomegranate sauce, with roasted apple bits and carrots.
I wanted dessert, but was too full (it was only lunchtime, after all). Laura told me about an exquisite dish Ali makes with phyllo dough stuffed with cooked fruit like peaches, pear, or apple and sauced with honey.
I went alone for a second visit and had the pumpkin dumplings, which were ethereal on their plate of tomato sauce and homemade yogurt, the very lightest, most sublime dumplings I’ve ever had. For my second dish, I had a “torly” of rabbit (a traditional Egyptian sauté-stew of meat and vegetables) which brought my mood down abruptly, because it only tasted okay. The potatoes, the main vegetable here except for some golden raisins that did not fit in, tasted like potatoes from an average diner. The rabbit (flesh I usually adore) was disappointing, too, with one exception: the meat closest to the bone was extraordinary, far more delicious than the euphemistically deboned rabbit I’ve had elsewhere. (Here, you could see the tiny legs and thighs, and imagine the bunny hopping about. Sorry, lovers of bunnies.)
To be fair, it was not the first dish Ali had suggested to me that day, it was the last at the end of a long list. He had pushed an artichoke stew with lemons that I no doubt should have ordered instead. So, take his suggestions. Also: take a lot of cash. Expect to spend $35-$40 a person, despite the humble room. Kabob Café is cash only, and just as there is no printed menu, expect your bill to be impressionistic and not itemized with any degree of nicety. The food is worth it. BYOB, although Ali also has some wines he is happy to serve you.
The place is utterly queer-friendly, and the meat is halal and freshly slaughtered. Ali regularly forages for some of his wild herbs and greens on land he and a friend own upstate, and says he expects to forage more vegetables from there soon.
“The part of human beings where our essence comes out is our genitals,” the chef told me as he fixed my dumplings. I couldn’t agree more. But it also comes out in the food served by our hands.
Kabob Café, 25-12 Steinway Street, Astoria, Queens, is not wheelchair accessible. Closed Mondays.